Mana’s Musings: Multiple Writing Personalities

LAURA YOO, A Member of HOCOPOLITSO Board, writes MANA’S MUSINGS for the second week of each month on the HOCOPOLITSO BLOG.

Laura Yoo, a member of HoCoPoLitSo’s Board of Directors and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College, writes Mana’s Musings on the HoCoPoLitSo blog.

Even though I teach writing, I cannot really remember or trace the early years of my own journey of learning to write.

Thanks to my mother’s foresight and my own tendency to hold onto things, however, I do have two special artifacts from my childhood – photos below.

First is a report on Beethoven that I wrote in the 5th grade, only a few months after my family moved from Korea and I began to learn English. This is my first “writing” in English that I can find. Mostly, it seems, I copied sentences from the Britannica. And that was “writing.”

Second is a newspaper article that I wrote in the 5th grade to a Korean Catholic newspaper about my observations on adoption.  In that article, I express sadness about Korean children who are adopted by families in other countries and I urge Koreans to adopt Korean children. An impassioned argument and plea from a 10 year old.

During my teenage years, I wrote a lot. Flipping through the many spiral notebooks that were my journals reveals that I wrote my “diaries” in English (even through the early years of my language acquisition) but insisted on writing my “poems” in Korean.  In English, my writing was about what I did that day, what I saw, what happened to so-and-so, or what I was thinking.  In Korean, on the other hand, my writing demonstrates an annoyingly dramatic teenage-angst in what appears to be verse. I can’t help but to roll my eyes at my 14 year old self.  It seems that my young mind associated English with recording facts (information) and Korean with describing love, pain, betrayal, suffering, drama, and dreams in poetry.

Later on in college, the notebooks got fancier and I wrote exclusively in English – and I stopped writing poems. Probably realized how terrible they were.  There was also a vague attempt at fiction-writing but I quickly learned that I was no good at it. So, instead of trying to create literature, I studied it.

The evidence of various transitions between Korean and English in my writings makes me wonder not only about my cultural identities but also my relationship to writing. You are what you write – and I guess how you write.

A recent article in The New Republic called “Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities” cites studies that illustrate a personality difference exhibited by one person speaking in two different languages. The article summarizes one particular study:

In one session, the volunteer and experimenter spoke only French, while the other session was conducted entirely in English. […] When [Susan Ervin] compared the two sets of stories, she identified some significant topical differences. The English stories more often featured female achievement, physical aggression, verbal aggression toward parents, and attempts to escape blame, while the French stories were more likely to include domination by elders, guilt, and verbal aggression toward peers.

I find myself experiencing this kind of shift in my identity when I switch “code” between English and Korean in my day to day life. In speech, I communicate not just the words or the “thing” that I’m trying to get across but also the cultural mores, the values, the manners, and the habits deeply rooted in that language. And I dare say the language also shapes human beliefs and behaviors.

Sadly, I don’t know if the same kind of code switching applies to my writing now – mainly because I don’t write in Korean anymore. So, it seems I have lost my Korean writing personality. Or even more sadly, perhaps this means my Korean writing personality will stay trapped in that 14 year old teenager ridden with angst. Scary thought.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Two TWL Episodes Now On YouTube: Rita Dove and Israeli Poems of War and Peace

Rita Dove discusses a musical life in verse

In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, Rita Dove, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and former National Poet Laureate, speaks with Maryland Poet Laureate Stanley Plumly about her latest book, Sonata Mulattico. The book tells the story, through multiple narrative poems in different voices, of George Bridgetower, an Afro-Polish child prodigy violinist who studied with Haydn. Beethoven dedicated a sonata to Bridgetower, “my crazy mulatto,” but later quarreled with him over a girl, and shunned him. Bridgetower fell into anonymity. The book is long and complex, Dove says, but “This is the only way to encompass this life and make it seem not a curiosity, but an essence of humanity.”

Israeli Poems of War and Peace

In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poet and professor Michael Collier talks with poets Moshe Dor and Barbara Goldberg about their 1997 book of Israeli poems and translations, After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace. Goldberg reads her translation of Ariel Kaufman’s “How My Brother is Cain,” and Dor reads the Hebrew version. Goldberg reads six more poems from the collection, including Amir Gilboa’s “My Brother Was Silent,” with the final, haunting line, drawn from the book of Genesis, “His blood cried out from the ground.” Goldberg concludes with a poem that sums up the Israeli desire for a long-coveted peace, Yehuda Amichai’s “Wildpeace.” This program was recorded in 1999.

HoCoPoLitSo names author Laura Shovan as poet-in-residence

Laura Shovan

Laura Shovan

The Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) has chosen Laura Shovan, winner of the 2009 Harriss Poetry Prize and author of an upcoming novel-in-verse for young readers, as its 24th poet-in-residence. Shovan will visit county high schools, the alternative school and Howard Community College classes to read her work and guide the students’ writing.

Using portraits and news headlines as triggers for poetry, Shovan will lead the students in writing their own verse. Shovan also plans to start a public reading series with student participation. A Maryland State Arts Council artist-in-residence since 1999, Shovan is the poetry editor of the Little Patuxent Review. Shovan’s book, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, comes out in April 2016 from Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. Her poetry chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the Harriss prize, and she has edited two poetry anthologies. Shovan graduated from NYU’s dramatic writing program, taught high school and worked for the Dodge Poetry Festival.

For 24 years, HoCoPoLitSo has brought contemporary writers to the students of Howard County to encourage the love of literature and writing. Atholton High School teacher Jennifer Timmel, whose class wrote with last year’s poet-in-residence Joseph Ross, said about the experience: “I think the poet-in-residence program is brilliant. The students were all very moved by (Ross’s) poetry; many of them are writers and poets themselves, so to be able to speak with someone who writes for a living was very inspirational to them. They found his work interesting and inspiring. Mr. Ross is … an incredible combination of encouraging teacher and good poet.”

Shovan follows in the footsteps of illustrious writers, including Lucille Clifton, Li-Young Lee, Michael Glaser and Grace Cavalieri. Last year’s poet-in-residence, Joseph Ross, wrote, “For high school students, I’m convinced poetry can help them discover who they are. It helps them know they’re not alone. Poetry has healing properties, it connects us to everyone else.”

In The News: Joy Harjo Wins $100,000 Poetry Prize

Congratulations goes out to Joy Harjo who has just won the Wallace Stevens award from the Academy of American Poets for ‘proven mastery’ as a poet. The award comes with a $100,000 prize for lifetime achievement. Read The Guardian’s story about the award here.

Part of that life time achievement was a visit to HoCoPoLitSo in 2008 when she read and performed music to an audience at the Howard County Conservancy during an afternoon event entitled “Poetry by Nature, A Family Affair.”

During the visit to Howard County, Ms. Harjo recorded the following episode of The Writing Life:

Poetry in Motion: How to Start a Movement

By Katy Day

Katy Day, student on the HoCoPoLitSo board, writes Poetry in Motion on the third Thursday of each month.

Katy Day, student on the HoCoPoLitSo board, writes Poetry in Motion on the third Thursday of each month.

Mind-shattering. It’s a word that best describes so many current events. People shot dead in a church — Charleston. Church burnings – throughout The South. Reflexive incarceration — everywhere. Uprisings of the underserved — Baltimore. The impoverished. The unfortunate. Inequality. Racism. Hate.

What can one person do to change the current state of the world?

IHeartPoetryI’ve come to know one place where you can begin to change things. Poetry.

If you hang around advocates of poetry and literature, you’ll often hear claims like “poetry has the power to promote change” or “poetry heals,” and if you’re like me, you’ll want evidence to support those claims. As you may know from a previous post of mine about what I’ve learned from the Humanities, I study both English literature and psychology. I appreciate theories about human nature that poetry and literature provide, but I also appreciate claims that are supported by science.

For the poetic minds, the scientific minds, and for those like me who fall somewhere in between, I have compiled a list of just a few ways in which words can make a difference that are all backed by science.

  1. Poetry has the power to reduce symptoms of depression and PTSD in adolescents who have suffered from abuse.
  2. Expressive writing causes increased physical and mental health.

There is a lot of research on the benefits of expressive writing. Dr. James Pennebaker is a leading psychologist in this field of research and has been studying the effects of expressive writing for over 20 years. He has found that people who write about deep emotions and difficult, traumatic experiences visit their doctor less frequently, experience an increase in immune system functioning, and report feeling happier. He has also found that participants in his studies who benefit most use insight and causal words. He posits that the act of meaning-making is, at least in part, responsible for the many benefits of expressive writing. This involves deriving meaning and insight from difficult experiences. Other research has found that expressive writing leads to decreased distress, negative affect, and depression. For advice on practicing expressive writing to improve physical and mental health, visit this website.

  1. Partaking in poetry therapy causes an increase in self-esteem, motivation for success, self-identity, self-expression, decision-making, and team cohesion in middle school students.
  2. Reading about friendships between fictional characters from different groups reduces prejudice.

There have been several experiments that studied the effects of reading fiction on reducing stigma associated with certain out-groups. One study found that reading Harry Potter novels decreases prejudice among stigmatized groups, including immigrants, homosexuals, and refugees.

  1. Youth slam poetry promotes social change.

One study analyzed 50 slam poems written by teenagers and found that poems addressed youth (including their agency, identity, and capacity to be critical thinkers), sexuality, health, and rights. Talking about health, sexuality, and human rights are often stigmatized, but poetry appears to be a place in which these topics are acceptable.

Need more proof? Read this poem by Lucile Clifton and experience the empowering capability of poetry for yourself. Poetry is a foundation for the individual looking out at a crazy world, a place from which change can grow.

won’t you celebrate with me

By Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

Katy Day, student on the HoCoPoLitSo board, writes Poetry in Motion on the third Thursday of each month.

Source material:

Kloser, K. (2013). Positive youth development through the use of poetry therapy: The contributing effects of language arts in mental health counseling with middle school-age children. Journal Of Poetry Therapy, 26(4), 237-253. doi:10.1080/08893675.2013.849042
Brillantes-Evangelista, G. (2013). An evaluation of visual arts and poetry as therapeutic interventions with abused adolescents. The Arts In Psychotherapy, 40(1), 71-84. doi:10.1016/j.aip.2012.11.005
Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2014). The greatest magic of harry potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal Of Applied Social Psychology, doi:10.1111/jasp.12279
Fields, A., Snapp, S., Russell, S. T., Licona, A. C., & Tilley, E. H. (2014). Youth voices and knowledges: Slam poetry speaks to social policies. Sexuality Research & Social Policy: A Journal Of The NSRC, 11(4), 310-321. doi:10.1007/s13178-014-0154-9
Greenberg, M. A., & Stone, A. A. (1992). Emotional disclosure about traumas and its relation to health: Effects of previous disclosure and trauma severity. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 63(1), 75-84. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.63.1.75
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162-166. doi:10.1111/j.1467 9280.1997.tb00403.x
Pennebaker, J. W. Writing and Health: Some Practical Advice. Retrieved from
Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and
immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal Of Consulting And
Clinical Psychology, 56(2), 239-245. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.56.2.239

Mana’s Musings: Could a Robot Write Poetry?

LAURA YOO, A Member of HOCOPOLITSO Board, writes MANA’S MUSINGS for the second week of each month on the HOCOPOLITSO BLOG.

LAURA YOO, a member of HOCOPOLITSO Board, writes MANA’S MUSINGS for the second week of each month on the HOCOPOLITSO BLOG.

Recently, I watched a movie called Ex Machina. It’s a science-fiction film about two people: Nathan is the creator of an Artificial Intelligence named Ava and Caleb is the man called upon to do the Turing Test, which is “a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human” (Wikipedia).

Like many movies and stories about AI, Ex Machina ultimately asks “What does it mean to be human?”  The movie defines this difference between machine and human as self-awareness and consciousness. But the true question, of course, is this: What does that self-awareness or consciousness look like?  The movie uses the example of a chess player: A chess playing AI may have all the possible moves in its data but is it aware of the game or itself as a player of that game?  In another movie about artificial intelligence, Transcendence, the “self awareness problem” is also at the heart of the issue. When a super computer named PINN is asked to demonstrate its self-awareness, PINN asks the humans “How do YOU know you’re self aware?” Of course, the humans are stumped.

After watching Ex Machina, I got to thinking about this question about what makes us human, and I thought about Ava’s ability to create. She draws. At first, she makes random marks on paper that do not resemble any object. Then, Caleb encourages her to draw objects and she draws them very well, including a portrait of Caleb. She can draw what she sees but can she create something new?  Could Ava write poetry?

But first, I think I have to start with “What is poetry?” If we can define this, then perhaps we can try to see if Ava could create it. There are many descriptions of poetry but to define it is quite challenging.  The dictionary definition for poetry – “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm” – is most unsatisfying to most of us, I think.  Perhaps poetry is something that defies definition.

Nonetheless, many poets have penned famous lines about poetry that help us know poetry when we see one.

For example, William Wordsworth so famously wrote that “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”  And Percy Shelley claimed “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”  How do you think Ava’s capacity for poetry would fare against these measures?

Let’s take “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, for example.

2015-09-01 10.02.30

Could (or would?) Ava create the line-breaks that emphasize “We” at the end of each line? Those specific rhymes? That rhythm? What about the very idea of writing a poem? Brooks says that she saw these guys playing pool at the “Golden Shovel” and wondered how they must see themselves.  In Brooks’ imagination, they think they are “real cool.” Especially given that “cool” is difficult to define at any given cultural moment, I wonder if Ava could come to this conclusion about the Pool Players and create a poem to represent her thought-experience.  Here’s another take: Two AIs might come up with the exact same poem about observing the same pool players at the Golden Shovel, but I think only Gwendolyn Brooks and no other poet could have created “We Real Cool” just as it is. I mean, just listen to the way she reads it.

In a broader sense, what about creativity? For example, Edward de Bono, who coined the term “lateral thinking,” says this about creativity:

“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.”

Do we think Ava could do this?  Certainly an AI could be programmed with all the necessary data – say, all poems ever written by every poet in human history – which would serve as “established patterns.”  Could she come up with something that has not existed before, see something that’s missing from her data and create it?

What about this claim about creativity by Frank Goble, a prominent champion of “character education”?

“Because of their courage, their lack of fear, they (creative people) are willing to make silly mistakes. The truly creative person is one who can think crazy; such a person knows full well that many of his great ideas will prove to be worthless. The creative person is flexible; he is able to change as the situation changes, to break habits, to face indecision and changes in conditions without undue stress. He is not threatened by the unexpected as rigid, inflexible people are.”

Goble clearly identifies the act of creation as distinctly human here. Not just human – but specifically the human ability to make sense out of chaos. As a character in Transcendence says, “Human emotion. It can contain illogical conflicts.” Along these lines, I also like what Christopher Morley says about poetry: “The courage of the poet is to keep ajar the door that leads into madness.”

Maybe I’m drawn to these descriptions that allude to all that is disorderly because then I feel that I can keep Ava out of it. Surely, an AI could not possibly deal in or deal with madness, chaos, crazy, and mistakes? Surely a computer like Ava is all about logic, order, pattern, and all that makes sense.  As you can see, I’m biased. And really what I want is to say is that poetry is a uniquely human activity. I don’t want AIs to appropriate poetry.

Just as AI movies are ultimately concerned not with science, machine, or robots but rather with humanity, my little musing here is really not about whether or not a robot could write poetry but really about… What is poetry? 

The more I ponder this question and go from one answer to the next question, I feel myself getting sucked into a black hole (watch Intersteller) and getting lost.  Time to stop. And go read a good poem like this one:

“Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand 

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.


I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

Join Us and Others: Underground Rooftop Coffee House — Voices from the Edge

image026Thursday, September 10, at 7:00pm-9:00pm

HoCoPoLitSo is ecstatic to work with Howard Community College’s Arts Collective’s “What Improv Group?!?!” (W.I.G.) and the campus’s Creative Writers to present an “Underground Rooftop Coffee House.” Please join us on September 10th and see why.

The event fuses W.I.G.’s underground, edgy take on improv with powerful and evocative stories inspired by poets and writers. W.I.G.’s cast features HCC students, staff and guest artists: Douglas Beatty, Noah Bird, Diego Esmolo, Doug Goodin, Daniel Johnston, Autumn Kramer, Terri Laurino, Scott Lichtor, Thomas Matera, Apryl Motley, Shannon Willing, Sierra Young… and a few secret-surprise guests! This event will also feature poetry and prose written by HoCoPoLitSo’s Nsikan Akpan and Katy Day and local Stoop star James Karantonis. You can’t have a coffee house without music, right? Chris Sisson and Steven Caballero will provide an acoustical array of songs for the evening.

But wait, there’s more:  W.I.G. will  want you to raise your voice to the collective “primal scream” to celebrate this, the start of Arts Collective’s 21st season. Happy Anniversary to them.

Tickets: Includes Coffee & Treats!

$10 All Students with I.D., Seniors/Military/Groups
$15 General Admission

Parental guidance suggested. No one under 14 admitted. Seating is limited, reserve tickets now!

Special Event – Post-Show Discussion:
Following 9/10’s performance!

Mana’s Musings: The Journey of Books


Laura Yoo, a member of HoCoPoLitSo Board, writes Mana’s Musings for the second week of each month on the HoCoPoLitSo blog

Remember this from my last musing on the “thing” of the book?

Excitement is not exactly what I found in the marginalia of my Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn.  Inside the cover I found this: “A.J. De Armond 1980- review copy”.  Then a note to the future readers of this book from A.J.: “Borrowers: please don’t confuse me by adding further notes to mine.” I’m trying to hear the tone of this message – is it a polite plea or a bossy command?

2015-07-06 20.20.45

A few days after this posted, I received an email from my friend Jean – subject line “OMG.” At first she thought it a coincidence that the initials I mentioned – A.J. DeArmond – was the same as her friend’s. Then we realized that she had given me that very book.  How could I have forgotten?

I learned from Jean that A.J. DeArmond is Anna Janney DeArmond, her dear friend and former college professor from University of Delaware.  When Professor DeArmond passed away in 2008, my friend inherited some of her books.  Jean wrote in her email that Professor DeArmond “began teaching at Delaware in the 30’s when the university had a separate women’s college and when female professors could not be married and had to live in the dorms with the students.”

What really floored me was that Jean was familiar with the kind of writing that you’d find in Professor DeArmond’s books:

Finally, I am sure her inscription and notes are in pencil, not pen, in the tiniest writing imaginable. I have many of her books with those notes.  And I am sure the inscription was a warning. She did a lot of book reviewing and her specialties were 18th century and American Lit. I am sure she saw that book as a teaching tool whose notes needed to be preserved for her future efforts.

This email from Jean made me smile all day long.  This book, which had been read and written in by Professor DeArmond had traveled from her hands to her shelf to Jean’s to mine within the span of about 30 years.  I had put it on my shelf without reading it, but the book’s life is one of resilience and patience.

An article remembering the professor after her death explained that she was the first woman to become a full professor at the University of Delaware. She went on to receive numerous awards in scholarship and teaching, and she served as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Munich in the 50s. She also taught in England, Australia, and China.  She lived a full and rich life of teaching and scholarship.  Indeed she was a pioneer woman. There I was, holding this scholar’s book in my hands – all the knowledge, the history, and the experience that was in the hand that scribbled these tiny writings in pencil.

Speaking of pioneer women, Aphra Behn is often cited in English literary history as the first woman to earn a living by writing. She is part of the canon in the study of the “rise of the novel,” and her Oroonoko and The Rover are common readings in any English major’s reading list.

So the other night, I flipped through my own three books of Behn’s writings.

In the Norton edition (green cover), I came across an article written by Robert Chibka. What?  Chibka? Professor Bob Chibka who was my favorite English professor at Boston College? The guy responsible for my scholarly interest in the eighteenth-century English literature?  Yup. The same professor who gave me two very good pieces of life advice: 1) If you want to be an academic, marry an accountant – which I did. 2) No, your writing is not good enough to get into an MFA program in creative writing (sorry, but not sorry) – boy am I glad he gave me such brutally honest advice.

2015-08-11 22.14.31

Okay, so it may seem a bit hokey to put stock in what seem like coincidences but I don’t think we can deny the connections that the material book makes simply by existing and being passed around. And the book’s journey can tell us a lot about its own material life, the lives of its previous readers and owners, and the literary work that’s inside the book.

How about one more story about a book’s travels?

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up my copy of Mitch Albom’s The Time Keeper which was among a large bulk of books I had ordered from  I noticed the bar code sticker from the library of Camp Hovey.  When I opened the book, a piece of paper fell out and it was a photocopied magazine article written in Korean.  Naturally I googled “Camp Hovey” and it turns out Camp Hovey is an American military base in South Korea.  And yes I am from South Korea.

Is your mind blown yet?  Let the magical journey of books sink in, dear readers.

2015-08-11 22.02.10

Mana’s Musings: Books are Things Too


Laura Yoo, a member of HoCoPoLitSo board, writes Mana’s Musings for the second week of each month on the HoCoPoLitSo blog. This is the first appearance of the new feature.

It was a beautiful day outside. The sun was shining. There was a light summer breeze. People were out and about, drinking coffee at side-walk cafes and window-shopping down Main Street in Old Ellicott City.

But I was inside a dark, dingy, and musty building – way up on the third floor of a sprawling antique store – where I stumbled upon a small section of old books. My friend and I browsed the huge selection of Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Bobbsey Twins collections. I discovered a unique illustrated edition of Oscar Wilde’s “Ballad of Reading Gaol” and a copy of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (pencil dated 1939), and those came home with me to join my collection.

2015-06-29 09.55.40

a mural at the intersection of Old Columbia Pike and Main Street in Old Ellicott City, Maryland

As I browsed those “pre-owned” books, I got to thinking about the material-life of books. Some used books are filled with marginalia, folds, and even small tears that show wear. Some suffer from cracked spines. Others are pristine – as if they were never used – perhaps very gently and carefully read but not used. A musty smell is activated when you open an old book – the pages so old and dry, yellowed brown, that when you turn them, they “crack.” You wonder about the last time someone had touched this book.  It’s an experience that engages all of your senses and sparks your imagination.

All of this made me go home to revisit my bookshelves and open up my old books.

2015-07-06 20.12.10

If you have an interesting edition of Roxana, I’m interested.

When I look at my three copies of Defoe’s Roxana I notice three different books. The first copy is a large, beautiful hardcover edition by The Heritage Club purchased by Miss Lee Baack – when I purchased the book at a used bookstore, it included the receipt and the publisher’s brochure. The second is a regular old Oxford World’s Classics copy that I used to study the novel for my thesis (notice all the post-it papers sticking out of the pages). The third is an early or mid 20th century sensationalized pocketbook edition. Although all three tell exactly the same story , the cover design and the physical appearance of the book beckon different kinds of readers as well as varying reading-purposes.


2015-07-06 20.19.02

one of my prized possessions – 1896 edition of Robinson Crusoe with beautiful illustrations

Inside my 1896 copy of Robinson Crusoe – of course, also by Defoe – there is an inscription: “R. Stacey Christmas 1903”.  The “£2” written next to the name reminded me that I had bought this book during my year abroad in England.

They do that, you know.  Old books – they remind me of specific times, events, people, and even feelings. My broken and tattered copy of Macbeth will always remind me of my awesome, wonderful high school English teacher who was also a real-life hippy who rode the motorcycle to school wearing his Grateful Dead t-shirt. Memories. Inside the pages of that book, I keep a photo of the Lady Macbeth statue that I took in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Each book – not the story, not the literary, artistic work that’s in it, but the physical book – has a life.  Our reading habits, what we do to our books end up shaping how we communicate with the future readers (our future selves or other people). Our reading habits change the thing of the book. What we do to our books pass from one reading circumstance to the next not only the writer’s art but also the experience of its being read – through various creases and folds, underlines, markings, and writings.

In “A Year in Marginalia: Sam Anderson,” Sam Anderson shares images of marginalia he made in 12 different books in 2010. He writes, “The writing I enjoy doing most, every year, is marginalia: spontaneous bursts of pure, private response to whatever book happens to be in front of me. It’s the most intimate, complete, and honest form of criticism possible — not the big wide-angle aerial shot you get from an official review essay, but a moment-by-moment record of what a book actually feels like to the actively reading brain.”  In another article, Anderson says this about his practice of marginalia: “I basically destroyed my favorite books with the pure logorrheic force of my excitement, spraying them so densely with scribbled insight that the markings almost ceased to have meaning.”


2015-07-06 20.20.45

“Borrowers: please don’t confuse me by adding further notes to mine.”

Excitement is not exactly what I found in the marginalia of my Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn.  Inside the cover I found this: “A.J. De Armond 1980- review copy”.  Then a note to the future readers of this book from A.J.: “Borrowers: please don’t confuse me by adding further notes to mine.” I’m trying to hear the tone of this message – is it a polite plea or a bossy command?




2015-07-06 15.23.49

all along I thought my brother had borrowed my book for school — turns out I had borrowed his copy and never returned it

Speaking of marginalia-over-marginalia, the copy of The Stranger on my shelf, it turns out, is not my own copy. It’s my brother’s – he says the book was new when he read it for school. In it, I see marginalia in my brother’s handwriting with only a few notes in my hand.  I also found on the first page of Chapter 5 a message from his classmate named Saidat who apparently wanted credit for helping him study this novel. But when asked about it, my brother said, “Who the hell is Saidat?” Oh well.




2015-07-06 15.18.17

“Nothing had changed but me. That was all that was needed to change everything 8.26.1998”

I can’t help but smile when I read inside the cover of my Crime and Punishment a penciled writing by 19-year old me: “Nothing had changed but me. That was all that was needed to change everything 8.26.1998.”

Dear readers, I invite you to browse your own bookshelves and revisit your old books.  I invite you to go to a used bookstore and rescue a book, take it home, see where it came from, and create a new life for that book with your own reading of it. The thing – not just the art – of the book has much to tell us. 

On Reading: A Poem That Caught My Eye to Catch My Ear.

Tim Singleton, co-chair of the HoCoPoLitSo board, writes On Reading for the fourth week of each month on the HoCoPoLitSo blog.

Tim Singleton, co-chair of the HoCoPoLitSo board, writes On Reading for the fourth week of each month.A Poem That Caught My Eye to Catch My Ear

The other day a poem caught my eye because it wanted to catch my ear. I had spied or sort of spied Eamon Grennan’s “Oystercatchers in Flight” in my inbox,’s Poem-A-Day offering.

Sea’s stony greenblue shatters to white…

EG Oystercatchers PADTo be honest, most of the time, the Poem-A-Day missives fall by the wayside, especially if, at a glance, they look long – I save them for ‘later’ and off they disappear, most likely not to be looked at again. This time, the word ‘oystercatchers’ caught my eye and then the brevity of the poem. I could take a look.

With the next glance and I saw the words looked pure sound and begged to be read aloud. I did. One. Two. And three times. The sound was a pleasure. It took something to work the line rhythms into the air. It was a roil of words. Something was going on here. I liked the way the words abutted each other, almost fighting for space and identity amidst the rockiness of the lines. [Listen to a reading of this poem in the clip at the bottom of this post — you can tell I am still working out the rhythm, sound and breath in the recording. Click on the image at the right to read the text of the poem.]

Up till then, I had just been saying the sounds of the poem. I was almost at the point of saying, “What is going on here? What is the meaning?” and some distraction reclaimed me to the busy tasks of the workday; the poem went by the wayside.

Much later in the day, someone else mentioned the poem and we brought it up on the computer to read together, trying to get out something we both had glimpsed, but didn’t really pay attention to at the time. What was going on in that poem? It looked neat. It sounded neat. But what?

Oyster catcher by Dan Pancamo

Oyster catcher by Dan Pancamo*

Early, in my inattentive glancing, I had assumed humans for oystercatchers. Seemed romantic, appropriate for a poem and I was working at meaning through that misconception, trying to figure out the bit about orange and black and what. Then, eureka, oystercatchers are birds! a fact which google not only confirmed but also displayed and we all started appreciating what the poem was obviously saying. The poem and its colors started to make beautiful sense. Sometimes we readers of poetry just try too hard.

There is a complexity to what could just be obvious in this poem, though, which makes it delight, but it wants a bit of trying to get at. The first line gets things going so quickly and particularly with sound that meaning might not deeply render on a quick read; its not conveying in the way of obvious and ordinary everyday language where words rest on the ear starting with meaning, rather by a pay-attention-example of solid words that jump right away into the next sound, almost leaving things behind. (All the punctuation in this poem but the last mark is of a push-forward kind: colons, hyphens, even that first apostrophe which launches a reader from the first word breathlessly into the second, even the parens, which add a hastened phrase on top of the forward push.)

Just where the poem ‘turns’ there is ‘veronica’ as a verb, kind of delicious, kind of awkward, a little odd to my ear and eye. The flower is not an everyday appearance in the geography of my mind, so I am not quite guided to instant image or meaning. Or is it a reference to a Christ-imaged cloth? Or the bullfighter’s move? Not sure. Can’t tell. But then I think it could be just the sound in the word that is describing what the birds are up to, how they hang and move in the windy air: slow-slow-fastoff: verrrr-onnnnn-ica. I am still a little uncertain about what it specifically conjures, but it slows down the rhythm for a moment before the ‘then away’. Nice. It is a great sound to say, a comfort after the hard Ss, Ts and Ks of the earlier lines.

The way sound and rhythm works through all the lines is thrilling, physically manipulating when you read it out loud (do!). It’s not just because of the punctuation lack. You can hear clapping here: “tribe of black till you clap and their risen black” in the repeated slap-like ‘ack… ap… ack’ sound. And you can sense the rhythm/wind hold-shift-hold for a moment in the poem, too:

               …and their risen black

as they veronica on wind and

then away with them (shrill-pitched as frighted

             plovers only harsher more excited)

and riding the stiff wind like eager lovers straining

             into its every last whim: its pulsing steady

The parenthetical phrase full of energy that stifles and speeds into the steady pulsing surrounding it, “harsher more excited” sending the tongue off and into the ploddingly slower single syllable words of “and riding the stiff wind like…” Grennan makes the wind of the breath match the wind of the wind. ‘Lovers’ brings back the stalling hold-in-place of ‘veronica’ with its V sound and something of a parallel image of wind fight. Then the final, almost exhaustive:

its pulsing steady

heart-push in every flesh-startling open-eyed

             long-extended deepening sea-breath.

which you don’t get to without having said the whole of the poem in one long exhale. Bravo. You are breathing like the sea.

On the first few glances at this Poem-A-Day email I missed some obvious things, a now super obvious one being Grennan’s comments on the piece I would have seen if I had scrolled down a single screen from the poem:

“This poem is a fairly straightforward visual report on its title, the birds being a common sight on the coastline I live beside in Connemara, Ireland. I sought a contrast between their ‘abiding’ and the speed and dash of their taking off, their going. The lovers’ metaphor intends, I guess, a broadening or deepening of the natural facts. The absence of punctuation is a strategy to suggest the long-breath continuity and interconnectedness of things.“

I had gone straight to the sound and was quite happy for it, even blew past the title and its clue. I wasn’t worried about meaning at that point, letting words be sound for the sake of hearing what the poet was up to. I was fortunate that the poem came back to me later, grateful the time spent listening through the sound to get to the meaning: it’s quite an enjoyable observation, quite a re-livable observation shared via Grennan’s skill with the rhythm and sound in words and groups of words. I love the way this poem uses breath and sound to portray what its words observe. You’ll be missing things if you don’t read it out loud yourself.

You can see that I am not the best at making the most out of the Poem-A-Day features as they visit my already overwhelmed emailbox. I pay attention only sometimes and then often just slightly. Still, I highly recommend signing up for the service and letting poems interject as they may. When they do, let them spend time with you. They have a way of making delightful your day.

*”Oyster catcher by Dan Pancamo” by Dan Pancamo – Flickr: The world’s mine oyster. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,530 other followers

%d bloggers like this: